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Catching On

The Virus Theater spreads to Shakespeare with a special staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

By David A. Fryxell

You could almost say the Virus Theater is going mainstream. After more than a decade of original collaborative creations, varying performance spaces and flying under the radar, this month the Silver City community theater group will be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream. Yes, the one by William Shakespeare. And no, this won't be an abridged, one-hour version like the Macbeth the group staged (with only six actors playing all the parts) last year — its only previous performance of a play not collectively written by Virus Theater members. It's actually trying to get the word out well in advance, and though performances will be free, donations are actively encouraged. With the proceeds, the Virus Theater hopes to start a fund toward someday having a permanent home.

Rehearsing for the Virus Theater's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Val Messervy (in background) with Sam Bensussen and Jo Gauer as three of The Players.

You could say that, sure. But you ought to know that at some point during the Virus Theater's performances, June 22-24 and 27-30 at Fort Cobre in Pinos Altos, the entire audience will get up and accompany the performers into the woods behind the fort.

So no, we're still not exactly talking about the touring company of Cats here. The adjective "unorthodox" springs to mind.

Which is just fine with Virus Theater founder Teresa Dahl-Bredine. "I wanted to make theater that really pertains to the here and now, that focuses on what's important to the local area," she says, "rather than putting on plays that could be done anywhere in the United States."

Dahl-Bredine grew up in Silver City, part of a family that's made its mark on virtually every creative nook and cranny of the area. The theater group's roots actually go back to her high-school years here, when she started a drama club. She went away to college, studying theater at Yale. But when she came home, the drama club got a second life as a then-unnamed theater group, including while also expanding beyond its original circle of the kids she'd grown up with.
The group actually did have a name — rather, names — but changed its identity with each different show. "Then, 10 years ago, somebody did a big writeup on us, and the headline was 'Catch the Virus,'" Dahl-Bredine recalls. "That was catchy, and the 'Virus Theater' name just stuck. It represents something spreading out into the community, reaching out and grabbing audiences."

The plays the Virus Theater puts on usually evolve much like the group's identity. As Heather Castello, a troupe member for three years, describes the process, performers bring to the mix characters they've created, and the plot grows organically from that interaction. "I'd never done anything unscripted before," Castello concedes. "I was a little panicky the first time." Says Dahl-Bredine, "It's the sort of thing that really doesn't lend itself to traditional theater settings, and we don't really have a financial base. So we stage each one wherever works best for the show."

The group's last show — performed downtown at The Hub — began with a first act "set in a different time continuum. Then the second act was in the present," Castello begins, then gives up on her Cliff's Notes attempt: "It's really very complicated — I can't even get into it. But the audience was really excited, very open, ready for it to be wacky."

Some of that "wacky" spirit will inform the Virus Theater's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will also be performed as part of a midsummer party on June 21 — location to be announced. Castello says, "We used some of the Virus approach in developing the characters, but of course we have to keep in mind what Shakespeare intended for his characters."

Though the details are still being worked out, Castello promises the production will likewise have "a different edge" when it comes to costumes and set design. It won't be done in period Shakespearean costumes, that's for sure. And then there's that trip to the forest. "We usually make the audience move at some point," Castello says.

Despite the improvisations on the Bard's original, Castello says she's delighted at the chance to perform Shakespeare: "Teresa and I both wanted to do Shakespeare, but there's not a lot of opportunity in town."

That's why the Virus Theater jumped at the chance to tackle Macbeth last December when Joe Kenneally commissioned the group to perform at a private holiday party. The party setting necessitated the radical abridgement and limited cast size, Castello explains.

Kenneally again commissioned the June 21 performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, although this staging, the party and the drum circle and dancing thereafter are open to the public. At press time, the group was still looking for an appropriate "special wooded location"; look for details in posters around town closer to showtime.

Donations from the subsequent performances in Pinos Altos will be invested in the Virus Theater's future, says Dahl-Bredine. "We really want to build an audience, get the donations flowing. We usually don't even know the name of the play until two weeks beforehand," she allows, "so we haven't been very good at advertising or marketing. We've managed to draw some people to the group now who are better at stuff like that.

"Within the next few years," she adds, "we'd like to be able to build or buy our own space."

But don't get the wrong idea about the direction the Virus Theater is headed. Don't start practicing crooning "Memories" in hopes of cracking the next cast.
Happy as she is to be making a stab at Shakespeare, Castello says, "I assume that for the next one, we'll be back to the old style."


The Virus Theater will perform Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream on June 21 at 6 p.m. as part of a free community Midsummer's Celebration, with a drum circle and dancing following the play. Location to be announced. The play will also be performed June 22-24 and 27-30 at 6 p.m. at Fort Cobre in Pinos Altos. Donations accepted but not required. Bring a lawn chair, cushion or blanket. For information, call 313-3038.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.


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